Rethinking sex ed, pt. 1

As a parent, I believe it’s my primary responsibility to teach my kid about sex and sexuality, and I often wonder about how we’ll approach the topic.  What I believe now about sex and sexuality is completely different from what I was raised to believe, and my personal experience of becoming sexually active is not one I would want for anyone.  I would like to pass on a feminist, sex-positive ethic of sexuality that prioritizes making informed choices, being comfortable with one’s body and sexuality, and seeing them as one’s own, not belonging to anyone else.  The problem is, I have no personal experience with such an approach to sex and am still working through the effects of a sex-negative religious upbringing that made me feel ashamed of my body and my sexuality.  I have no model for how to raise a child like this.  I think in a lot of ways I still have hangups about sex as something shameful and dirty, and I don’t know how I’m going to teach my child that sex, if one wants to have it, can be a healthy, normal part of adult life (and yes, teen life too, though preferably later in adolescence than sooner!) when I myself don’t quite believe it.

My husband and I were both raised to believe sex before marriage is a sin, and a really serious one.  Same with masturbation (always, always a sin).  Anything you did with someone you might not end up married to was considered robbing your future spouse and the future spouse of the person you were doing it with.  No pressure!  And there was no sex ed whatsoever for most people; I had some sex ed because, unlike most kids at our church, I was in public school.  In most families, any information about anything related to sex was considered an invitation for kids to “fall into temptation.”  Dating wasn’t allowed – you had to have a parent-approved courtship.  The philosophy was: don’t even think about sex until marriage, get married young, have kids young, and then everything will be fine with your marriage and sex lives.  Wonderful advice.

We did kiss before marriage, and you know, made out some, but that was it – and that made us rebels in our circles!  And we’ve only ever kissed each other, which I only recently realized is just very weird.

Funny enough, a lot of couples raised like we were have trouble transitioning into being sexually active once they’re married. It took us several months to be able to have PIV sex.  It sucked (not the sex, that was good – the wait) – and it still took years after that to really get to a comfortable place with sex.  And of course we never told anyone about the trouble we were having; thanks to being raised to think of sex as a completely taboo topic, the idea of talking about our sex lives with anyone was beyond mortifying.

I strongly suspect our difficulties were far from atypical.  It’s an unspoken problem in a lot of churches that women in particular have a very tough time switching, overnight, from “sex is dirty and must be avoided at all costs” to “sex is good and normal and awesome and we should do it all the time.”  For example, in the book Real Sex, Lauren Winner gives the example of a friend of hers who was still a virgin after a year of marriage, because his wife couldn’t adjust psychologically to suddenly being sexually active.  It can take years for some women to become comfortable with being sexual and to have satisfying sex lives, and some never really do.  Men in these communities are also negatively affected by teachings that treat sex as shameful and dirty, and have trouble accepting and expressing their sexuality before and after marriage, though the effects often take different forms than they do for women – for example, intense shame over being unable to refrain indefinitely from masturbating or viewing porn, and hangups that encourage the sexual objectification, coercion, assault, and even rape of female sexual partners.

Of course, this isn’t just an issue between men and women in straight marriages.  When you try to control people’s sexuality by purposefully denying them information about sex and suppressing any honest discussion of sex, it can cause problems for people of any gender, and any sexual orientation.  Even for those of us who have abandoned the sex-negative ideas and churches we were raised in, the damaging effects of this kind of upbringing can last a lifetime.

21 Comments

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  2. prairienymph says:

    I am the only person my husband has kissed. We kissed for the first time about 2 months before our wedding. I remember the frustration of early marriage. We wanted sex but were afraid it was wrong or objectifying to ask.

    One of the things we are doing with our girls is to get them used to non-sexual nudity. We leave the bathroom door open and aren’t in a huge rush to put on clothes after a shower. We want them to see their bodies as natural and beautiful and in non-sexy situations.

    At the same time we tell them it is never ok if someone sees their bodies if the girls don’t want them to, and that only they can touch their bottoms because some people can hurt them. I try not to focus on the fear of being hurt, but to emphasize that they own their bodies.

    Right now it is fairly easy since they are quite young. Although, when our oldest was 1 1/2 she went up to my husband’s coworker and announced that she had a vulva! He had no clue what she was talking about.

    • Thanks so much for sharing how you’re handling this subject with your kids! I love to hear what other parents are doing, because we really are so in the dark on this. Of course there are always books to read, and I’ll certainly do that, but it’s not quite the same as learning from other parents. These are also great ideas. I particularly like I try not to focus on the fear of being hurt, but to emphasize that they own their bodies – this to me is such a crucial thing for girls especially to learn. So much of what we were taught in fundamentalism was that women’s bodies basically belong to anyone *but* them.

      It makes me so sad to think how many couples’ sex lives have been ruined or stunted by lack of information and fundamentalist sex-negativity. It’s so unnecessary.

      Re: the vulva story – that’s totally hilarious, and cute!

  3. I think everything you wrote here is what you should say to your children. Make it clear that you grew up in an environment where nudity, sex, and sexuality was taboo, and explain how that was harmful. There is nothing so important for a parent to do with their children than be honest and forthcoming about their own experiences and show that while you are not perfect, you will always try to act in their best interests and come from a place of love and acceptance.

    • Very true. We definitely plan on being upfront about our upbringing and its effects – in age/maturity-level appropriate ways, of course. I think it’s crucial for parents to relate to their kids as real, flawed human beings, not as perfect or perfected people who have everything together. For one thing – they’ll eventually figure out it’s not true! But more importantly, I think it’s essential for building a relationship of mutual respect and understanding with one’s kids.

  4. I came from a sligthly different background; you probably won’t agree with a lot of my assumptions–but I think this topic is a huge problem in many churches and needs to be addressed.

    I am Catholic. I am also incredibly lucky to have parents who had a very normal and healthy approach to sexuality. My parents had a continuous conversation with me; about sex, but sex in the context of self-image, peer pressure, relationships, and whatever particular issue was on my mind at the moment. They allowed me to ask questions, to challenge or disagree with them, with the support of their unconditional love.
    Sex was never presented to me as dirty, or as something I owed to anyone. My sexuality was a gift from God. Yes, I was taught that the sexual act belonged in marriage-but I was also taught that physical intimacy should be correspondent to committment and emotional intimicay…that it was a buildup, not an off/on switch.
    I think the biggest thing my family did for me was avoiding the biggest pitfall The Purity Ideal . I was never given the sense that I had this magical, mystical gift of purity that was the key to my worth. Chastity, the ordering of the sexual appetites to love and committment rather than momentary gratification, was a virtue. But it was one virtue among many equally or more important: kindness, honesty, integrity, fairness, compassion. And like every other virtue, it was something you screwed up at, something you just had to keep practicing and working on.

    Basically what I am trying to say is that healthy dialogue about sex should not be the exlusive perogative of a progressive, liberal, or self-identified feminist mindset. A more traditional approach to the role of sex is NO excuse for not talking to your kids, NO excue for blackmailing them into agreeing with you, NO exuse for objectifying our daughters into little virginal dolls whose worth depends on how untouched they are by men.

    Sorry bout multiple typos. In a rush.

    • C- welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment! What I believe now about marriage and sex is very different from the Catholic perspective, but I definitely hear you that a sex-positive approach can be made compatible with some traditional Christian ideas about sex and marriage. Catholicism has the advantage (or I guess disadvantage, depending on who you ask) of being a big tent with a huge variety of subcultures, ranging to liberal to basically fundamentalist . . . I know Catholics who were raised like you were, Catholics who were raised with very liberal ideas about sex/marriage, and Catholics who were raised with even more repressive ideas about sex than my husband and I were (very very traditionalist old mass only Catholics).

      I don’t think teaching that sex is meant for marriage necessarily has to involve sex-negativity, so I agree with you on that point. At the same time, there are a couple issues that make it difficult for me to see how ‘orthodox’ Catholic teaching on sexuality is fully sex-positive: one being masturbation, and the other birth control. I can say more about my perspective on those but don’t want to go on at length about that unless you’re interested ;)

  5. I find this post fascinating. Personally, I was raised in a home where I learned early on (around age 8) about the mechanics of sex, was exposed (around that same age) to the perversions of it through various forms of porn my dad and other male relatives were consuming, but refrained from intercourse myself until marriage due to Christian conversion as a teenager (though there were some ventures into forbidden territory prior to the wedding day).

    I think most of us have hang-ups about sex. Some of it is cultural (America is fraught with mixed messages on the subject, mostly erring on the sides of either objectification or puritanism). The mistake most churches make is in creating a system of legality around sex that ignores the fact that sexuality does not begin (nor end, for secularists) at the marriage altar.

    As a young married woman, I worked a lot with teenage girls as a Christian school teacher and a mentor in our church. I told them about the missteps my husband and I had made in our youth (as a couple and as individuals) and about the difficulty we both had coming into marriage with a healthy attitude about sex. I basically gave them the old “here’s what no one told me, but I wish they had.”

    I’ve had several former students thank me for those conversations after they got married. And I firmly believe there should be more of that, especially for young people who are, in fact, waiting until marriage to have sex. Knowledge is empowering and they need to have the confidence to communicate what they need and what they want in a relationship.

    The one thing my husband and I did have going for us starting out was a deep friendship and commitment to communication. We were able to work out a lot just by telling each other our fears and feelings about it all.

    The beauty for me in confining sex to a marital relationship is that you do have this one person committed to you no matter what happens (or what doesn’t happen) in the bedroom. There’s tremendous freedom in that. You can try new things, discuss hang-ups, work out your issues, all with the security and intense intimacy that comes from trusting just one person with that knowledge. And I think it strengthens the marital relationship to explore our different expressions of sexuality together, over the years (because God knows things change with age).

    • I agree that there are broader cultural components at work here. Many, if not most, Americans are secret hedonists who behave like humorless prudes in public. We seem to only be able to deal with sexuality in public if it’s some airbrushed, objectifying, almost sanitized fantasy.

      It’s great that you reach out to girls at your church to educate them about these things. Like you say, knowledge is empowering; lack of knowledge can be quite harmful, and even dangerous. I think it’s very dishonest and irresponsible of churches to give kids no information about sex, beyond a vague, rosy picture, and then throw them right into the deep end of sexual expression and expect them to be able to figure out how to swim entirely alone. Very wrong.

      The beauty for me in confining sex to a marital relationship is that you do have this one person committed to you no matter what happens (or what doesn’t happen) in the bedroom.

      Perhaps, but this is only true as long as that person chooses to remain committed. Marriage is no guarantee of unconditional, life-long commitment – it’s the promise/hope of that. And it’s not the only romantic arrangement in which such unconditional commitment can exist. There are plenty of people who are together but unmarried who are much more committed to each other than couples who are married. And, especially in very patriarchal cultures, confining sex to marriage – especially coupled with the idea that divorce is not an option – can be very dangerous. I know quite a number of stories about women who did all the right things they were supposed to as Christians – stayed virgins until marriage, kept “pure,” married men who were “pure” – and then found out after the wedding that they had locked themselves into a sexually abusive relationship. To be completely honest, given how completely naive I was when I got married, I consider it simply a matter of luck that I didn’t end up with a sexually abusive husband. I strongly suspect it’s a widespread problem in fundamentalist and evangelical churches.

      Sexuality does not begin (nor end, for secularists) at the marriage altar. – I’m not sure what you mean by the parenthetical comment. Could you elaborate?

      • “Sexuality does not begin (nor end, for secularists) at the marriage altar.” – I’m not sure what you mean by the parenthetical comment. Could you elaborate?

        Really I was just being unnecessarily snarky. I’ve had more than my share of comments from people who thought that getting married at 21 to the only man I hoped to ever have sex with was premature and really a waste. As if marriage is the death knell for good sex. There’s a growing sentiment in our community that marriage is really obsolete and there’s an expectation that uninhibited sexual experimentation and having multiple sexual partners is the healthiest way to explore one’s sexuality.

        • I see. Hmm. I dunno, most of the people I know who share my current perspective on sex and sexuality are married or plan to be at some point, so it’s hard for me to associate it with a belief that marriage is the death knell for good sex. I do think concerns that people who marry very young and with little or no sexual experience may not have a very good sex life are pretty legitimate, though, especially if they don’t have friends or community who are willing to be candid with them about sex and walk them through the transition into being sexually active.

          I find the term ‘secularist’ to be pretty polemical. It’s not how I or people I know who share my worldview see ourselves, and it’s often used as a pejorative label, and used to dismiss our points of view as not worth considering, or anti-Christian/anti-God. At least, that’s what ‘secular(ist)’ always meant in the churches I grew up in. So I’m not terribly fond of it.

      • oh yes, and this exactly. I think there is much danger in the common depictions of marriage automatically being “a safe space,” regardless of the character of the people engaging in the marriage. That puts women (especially but not exclusively) in a very vulnerable position, and it allows others to ignore the plight of women in danger. How could they be in danger, after all? They’re married. (Yet more reasons that the heterosexual monogamy approaches to AIDS prevention are so flawed. They leave people without the tools to protect themselves when a supposedly monogamous partner isn’t.) It’s similar to all the false arguments against gay parents adopting that assume that heterosexual parents are perfect simply by virtue of being straight, as though heterosexual parents are incapable of doing enormous damage to their children.

        • @thefrogprincess – Yes. And the same goes for the assumption that family is automatically “safe space,” too. That’s how cultures of abuse thrive.

  6. Grace, I had a very similar upbringing to you, although my church hadn’t quite yet fully embraced “courtship” and the like. My parents never really talked to me about sex, other than sex was how babies were made. Everything I learned, I learned from the 8th grade school bus. My parents opted me out of public school sex-ed. I was raised to believe that sex before marriage was wrong etc etc etc.

    Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get the dream of marrying young so that waiting doesn’t really become a huge issue. I’m still not married, I’ve got no prospects for marriage any time soon, and I think there’s a significant chance I won’t ever get married. That really makes one rethink the “sex before marriage” stance. Why I am being punished for getting an education and not making getting married a priority and for just happening to spend time getting an education in places where it wasn’t likely I was going to meet marriage-worthy men??

    I lost my virginity several months ago, at the age of 27 (!!!!!). The act itself was fine enough, although the guy in question had issues and things faded pretty quickly after that. Do I regret it? Absolutely not. I’m angry that I got caught up in the “purity” hype and that I waited so long for something that just wasn’t that big of a deal. I’ve never found anything romantic in the idea that you only kiss and have sex with one other person…frankly, how do you know it’s good? I’m angry for the life experiences I’ve missed out on. And I’m also angry about religious practices that, at least in my Southern Baptist upbringing, are predicated exclusively on getting married young and leave those that get married later or never in the lurch. For those who believe that abstinence outside of marriage is God’s doctrine, then it should be God’s doctrine. It shouldn’t always be followed with “…until you get married” because that’s misleading. Not everyone does and it’s one thing to wait until you’re 20; it’s a whole ‘nother can of worms to wait until you’re 40 or to die a virgin without actively choosing to be a nun/monk.

    But more importantly, I’ve become increasingly concerned about what you mention, Grace: the fact that negative views about sex don’t disappear the second a ring is placed on the finger. I know people who say they’re waiting until they get married and then talk about how they’re afraid they’re going to get pregnant if they kiss. They go on and on about how they’re going to be punished with pregnancy and/or a disease. I refuse to believe that decades of sex shame vanishes.

    For what it’s worth, of all the “waiting” people I know, only one of them doesn’t have the correlating shame and negativity. She says affirmatively that she only wants to have sex with her husband. She never says…I’m waiting until… It’s a subtle shift but it’s important.

    • That really makes one rethink the “sex before marriage” stance. Why I am being punished for getting an education and not making getting married a priority and for just happening to spend time getting an education in places where it wasn’t likely I was going to meet marriage-worthy men??

      Yes. The insistence that one commit to an indefinite period of abstinence is incredibly unfair to whole demographics of people, and ignores the reality that humans, for the most part, are not built – physically, genetically, psychologically, evolutionarily – to go without sex indefinitely. Asking a sexually mature person who isn’t asexual to go without sex for the foreseeable future is asking them to shut off a whole part of themselves that isn’t meant to be shut off.

      I’m angry that I got caught up in the “purity” hype and that I waited so long for something that just wasn’t that big of a deal.

      Me too. It makes me very angry when abstinence advocates tell teens and young adults that nobody ever regrets waiting longer to have sex, or ever regrets “saving themselves” for their spouses. That’s a lie. My husband and I both very much regret waiting and regret that we’ve only ever had sex with each other. And I know for a fact that we are far from alone in feeling that way.

      Re: sex not being that big a deal – this is something that hit me literally on our wedding night. It was like, what exactly was it about that ceremony and exchanging rings in a church that suddenly made taking each others’ clothes off cool with God? It made no sense. We were already committed to each other long before we exchanged “official” vows, but it wasn’t ok to have sex then. But after we said a bunch of words in front of friends and family, *poof*, it’s ok? I mean, I was taught in middle school (!) that as soon as the ceremony was done, a husband and wife could literally go off into a back room of the church that very second and have sex and it would be fine. I don’t mean any offense to people who believe sex isn’t OK without a wedding ceremony, but that’s like the definition of magical thinking. Of course I didn’t tell anyone but my husband that I had these kinds of doubts about what we were raised to believe on this point . . .

      I refuse to believe that decades of sex shame vanishes. Agreed.

      She never says…I’m waiting until… It’s a subtle shift but it’s important. I think that is an important difference.

  7. Hey Grace!
    1) Masturbation, to me seems to be about seeing sex as inherently mutual: that to reach orgasm without engaging another person is isolating and a distortion of the dignity and meaning of the sexual act.
    2) The Church’s teaching on contraception is very complex and at times involves fine theological points. However, it is important to grasp that women are not viewed as baby making machines, whatever chauvinist Catholic men tell you. A couple is NOT required to have as many babies as they possibly can, or to stumble through sex blindly. One, among several, reason we believe hormonal contraception is wrong is because women’s bodies are perfect and made in the image and likeness of God; to interfere with bodily integrity or chemically “treat” a woman’s fertility as if it were a disease is an assault on her dignity. As fertility science has developed, the Church has embraced increasingly more accurate ways of family planning that work with the design of woman’s body and demand that her partner learn about and appreciate it. That’s the very very short answer.

    I would love to hear your perspective at greater length if you want to move this to email; I would also love some recommendations on books/authors that really encapsulate your thoughts. I’d be happy to do the same. Back to my main point: I think everyone except rapists and pedophiles places sexuality within *some* kind of morality structure. Adults of good-will can legitimately disagree on these contexts without one being necessarily sex-positive/negative. To me, the term just doesn’t capture the nuances and complexities of such a fraught human issue, you know ?

    Love your blog, would love to hear from you!

    • I do agree that it’s possible to believe in premarital abstinence without being sex-negative. The problem I have with traditional Christian teaching (under which I include Catholic teaching) on masturbation in particular is that it rests on factually false assumptions about human sexuality. An ethic of sexuality that isn’t based in reality can’t be sex positive, in my opinion.

      Masturbation is a normal part of human sexuality for the vast majority of people, and for virtually all men. It serves a biological function – several, actually. Non-human animals masturbate. It’s a natural part of human sexual expression and development. To talk about a behavior like masturbation – which, to boot, is about as close to impossible to avoid as you can get for 99% of men – as a sin seems to me to render the concept of sin either totally meaningless or capricious and cruel. And to on top of that call it a selfish act that maligns the dignity of sexual union given that, again, it’s something the vast majority of people simply can’t help doing at some point (usually many points) in their lives seems very unfair.

      The same could be said about homosexuality and other sexual orientations besides heterosexuality. Like with masturbation, scholars who study human sexuality know that different sexual orientations are naturally occurring variations in human and non-human animal sexuality. So that’s part of why I consider the Catholic teaching on sexuality to be sex-negative; not necessarily because it insists that sexual expression belongs only within marriage, but because it rejects factual knowledge that we have about human sexuality and insists on its own facts (that masturbation and homosexuality violate natural law, for example).

      My objection isn’t that I believe Catholic teaching tells women they have to breed like rabbits – I know it doesn’t. I’m pretty familiar with the theology of the body and other aspects of Church teaching on contraception. I think the theology of the body is a nice idea that sounds pretty but in practice fails to deal with the facts of human biology and psychology, and often has devastating effects on women, families, and marriages.

      I’ll drop you an email with more on this soon.

    • P.S. – Jordan’s comment below yours pretty much encapsulates what I now believe about human sexuality, worded perhaps a bit more bluntly than I would have done :p

  8. Have sex. Please. Have a lot of sex. Whether you are married or not.

    The absurdity of bastardizing sex is a crime on humanity. EFF YOU, St. Augustine. Here’s a guy who was so obsessed with sex and his inability to convince women to have it with him, as well as his inability to *cure* himself of sexual desire through prayer, that he basically force-fed ridiculous ideas about shame, fear, and evil to a world that, through some cosmic joke, happened to be ripe to hear these things. Again, this is a guy who opposed abortion because males get souls 40 days after conception (you slow poke females don’t catch up until the 90 day mark) but sure, let’s have him set out the social consciousness on sexuality for the next 1800 years. Seriously, if I could, I would go back in time and kick him right in the crotch. Maybe that would heal him.

    People want to have sex. Physically and emotionally, people even crave, even NEED, sex. So when these desires are peaking for the first time (adolescence) we’re going to tell you to completely ignore the wants, cravings, and needs, because we said so? Good idea. Masturbation is COMPLETELY harmless. In fact, it prevents lots of other harms, like rape, date rape and its equivalents, unwanted pregnancies, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and the types of stressed-out, pent-up, angst-fueled behaviors of teenagers (and everyone else) that we generally want to avoid. Someone here commented on how it takes the beauty of shared experience away from sex. Maybe, but that’s a hell of a lot better than forcing that shared experience on someone. Or than making a mistake with pregnancy when you aren’t ready. Or disease.

    As for the one-partner thing, I think it is completely ridiculous. I was someone who bought into it for a long time, and I just thank my lucky stars that I “strayed”. Otherwise, I most certainly would have married someone that was wrong for me just to have sex with her. Or someones, since that would’ve likely happened with about five people I can think of. Bad sex can absolutely ruin a long-term relationship. Why gamble with that by holding off on it until marriage? Sex is fundamental to the human experience for so many, and certainly to marriages. For the same reason that you shouldn’t marry someone you’ve never fought with — you WILL disagree, and you’d better know how the two of you work things out — you shouldn’t marry without knowing a thing or two about life in the bedroom with one another.

    I remember being at the wedding of a very good friend who was marrying someone in a megachurch. They had never had sex, and another groomsman and I were worried for them. Trouble was, we had never talked to the groom about it either, because, well, it was awkward! So we sort of took him aside at one point during the reception and fumbled through a two minute chat about what we thought was important. I would guess we had absolutely no positive effect whatsoever, but we felt better for trying. Looking back, we should’ve started earlier with the guy, and worked harder to try to lend insight.

    Which is my basic position on sex in general. People should work to understand it from the beginning, and there should be no secrets. Its dangerous to conceal things from partners, and it may be even more dangerous to conceal things from kids/young adults/etc who are just learning about and experimenting with sex.

    Having sex is extremely special, and I would never seek to devalue that. But to pretend that you’re only ever going to want sex from one person is pretty absurd. So why play roulette with the chances that you pick THE right one? I really think it is possible to know even if you just have sex with TWO people: “Okay, it’s not like I’m missing out on anything here, these are the mechanics of it, and it is definitely better/more fun/magical/etc with her/him, I know this is real.” But if you confine yourself to one, I think you may always wonder. I know I did.

    This is not the same thing as saying to have sex whimsically, and DEFINITELY not the same as saying to have sex outside of commited relationships if those commitments include explicit or implicit fidelity promises. What it is saying is that sex is healthy and normal, and I think many of us had to work really hard to understand that. Which sucks, because by and large the barriers erected to prevent that understanding were unnecessary devices that relgious leaders/zealots/parents attempted to use to control their flock/children/followers. Being safe and responsible is not the same as being a monk. But telling people how bad/evil/taboo sex is prevents safe and responsible sex in ohsomany situations. Which is ridiculous. Even tragic.

    Okay. So go forth and have lots of sex. I permit it.

    • Jordan, you win the internet. Agreed, especially about the physical and emotional necessity of sexual expression for most people (besides folks who are asexual), and about the weirdness of picking and choosing certain parts of the Church fathers as dogma while pretending they didn’t also say some totally absurd things about women and sex and homosexuality and all sorts of things . . .

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